Are you funny? Can you tell a joke or spin a yarn? Well if you can type out a few words of a story, the Havin’ a Laugh Charity are giving you until April Fool’s Day to submit copy for a new humorous book they’re publishing to help people with mental health challenges.
The charity was set up seven years ago, initially as a suicide support group for people in the northwest. It has grown into a service that regularly helps people with mental health issues by encouraging physical and mental well being activities, funded through community vouchers. Now the charity are working to put together a book of illustrations, jokes, poems, quotes and stories to be published in time for World Mental Health Day on October 10th.
Photographer Val Robus, who benefited from the charity when she went through a difficult time with depression and anxiety, explains how the idea came about. "At one stage I was going to counselling and I was told the Havin' a Laugh Charity gave individual vouchers to help people. I received a voucher for a seaweed bath, and that day on the beach was a turning point for me. I hadn't picked up my camera for a long time but I started taking photos. Later on I received a voucher for a photography course."
From that little bit of kindness Robus built up her photography, writing and blogging career, which led her to become the digital media specialist for Leitrim marketing group Momentum. Heartened by her own experiences and recovery, she wanted to give something back.
“I set up a regular coffee morning in Sligo to fundraise so other people in counselling could benefit from vouchers. The first coffee morning 200 people turned up. There’s no obligation, but people sometimes make a donation. Most recently we started a coffee morning in Leitrim. Everyone in the community is welcome, but out of those mornings the idea was born to publish a light-hearted book. The word [count] of pieces is short; I know when I was bad, my attention span was rubbish, so we’re looking for easy-to-read pieces that’ll make people smile,” she says.
Without giving away storylines, Robus mentions some of the funny stories submitted. There’s one about a goat and some Jehovah’s Witnesses. There’s another about mishaps at a wedding from guests following a wrong car to another hotel (pre-mobile phone era) to the band playing Please Release Me by mistake for the first dance and the bride getting her behind stuck in the jacuzzi, resulting in a large bruise.
“We’ve a professional editor on board and we’ll be running workshops, run by published writers, to help people edit work if necessary. We’ve had submissions from all over, including the UK and America, but we’d love to see more.”
Founder of the Havin’ a Laugh Charity, yoga instructor Bláithín Sweeney, says she has no doubt the book will be a success because the community is passionate about involvement; the Havin’ a Laugh model of interacting with community and services is also sparking interest from other groups nationwide.
“This started out first as the Havin’ a Laugh Weekend Festival, where we ran activities: mountain biking, yoga, kayaking, that kind of thing. We raised money and contacted the Northwest Stop counselling service and asked could their clients benefit from having a voucher for an activity. Out of that we issued our first surf voucher and then an archery voucher.”
Bláithín explains that the vouchers aren’t means tested, “we’ve got feedback that people won’t spend money on themselves to do anything nice. We also know that getting a voucher means so much to people in recovery.”
The vouchers are tailored to what people want and need, it could be a painting course, horse riding or paddle boarding; counsellors contact the charity, no names are mentioned and the vouchers are indistinguishable from any other vouchers the public can buy.
“We are people supporting people,” she adds. “Everybody in the community benefits. There’s lots that can be done that doesn’t involve talking, sometimes people need to take a break from that; we try to show the positive side of recovery and to give hope. There’s also a massive amount of research to show people can reduce mental trauma through the body; I’m especially passionate about that.”
As well as exercise benefiting the mind, research also shows laughter is hugely beneficial. According to the Mayo Clinic, laughter increases oxygen intake, stimulates the heart, lungs and muscles and increases endorphins. A belly laugh relaxes the body and soothes tension and in the long term laughter improves the immune system, may relieve pain, helps people cope and “can help lessen depression and anxiety”.
Host of the new Karnival Comedy Club in Limerick Karl Spain has also previously been a mental health ambassador for the Treaty city. He says people sometimes come up to him after a gig and tell him how much a good laugh lifts their mood.
“I did a gig recently where a family told me afterwards it was the anniversary of a cousin who was a huge comedy fan and they came out as a tribute to him. They told me they’d such a good laugh and it helped.”
In a time when social media can skew people's sense of reality, Spain says that "there's a great honesty in good comedy, which people can identify with". He believes we all need to remember real sociability. "We live in a world where we've Netflix, can get food delivered, can work from home, but getting out in your community and supporting community is so important."
The Havin' a Laugh book (see havinalaugh.com for details) will be 144 pages long. Although it'll be a book of the people, Robus says they would be grateful if some of the country's best-known comedy writers and comedians might also submit something.
“We are, after all, a nation of storytellers,” Robus says.